Community rallies for Jennifer Vranizan, who is battling cancer

Jennifer Vranizan giggles, quickly picks up a “smile on a stick” and places it over her mouth.

A friend gave her several of them, each one showing a different expression, to use because Bell’s palsy has temporarily paralyzed her facial muscles.

Jennifer is working with a speech therapist to learn to smile again, but her bigger battle is fighting stage IV defuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which she was diagnosed with a year ago.

More than anything, Jennifer and her husband, Tim, who live in the Highpoint neighborhood in Sherwood, have been overwhelmed with the unexpected outpouring of love and support they have received from the community since her diagnosis.

Jennifer is originally from Nebraska, and Tim is a fourth-generation Portlander; they met in downtown Portland in 1992 when he was a temporary worker at Marketing One Securities where she was working in the annuity department.

“I was working on my master’s degree and took the job during the summer,” Tim said.

They married in 1996 and moved into the Highpoint house in what was then a rural area when they got back from their honeymoon.

“We filled the house up quickly with kids,” said Tim, who is chief operating officer for NorCal Mastercraft, which is based in Northern California. “I used to go down there every other week but took a leave of absence after Jenny got sick. With Jen and the kids, it was just too much.”

Jennifer added, “I can’t drive because of my medications, and in May and June I was in the hospital for a week every other week for chemo treatments, so I need Tim here.”

Their three children include Abby, who will turn 15 in September and be a freshman at Jesuit High School; Henry, who will be 11 in September and a fifth-grader at St. Francis School in Sherwood; and Lily, 8, who will be third-grader at St. Francis.

‘Perfect responder’

On a summer day in mid-August, the kids were running in and out of the house and busy with their own activities as Tim and Jennifer sat down to talk about fighting cancer.

“On Aug. 18, 2011, I had such severe abdominal pain that I went to Providence Sherwood Medical Center,” Jennifer said. “I was sent to Providence Imaging in Newberg for an ultrasound that showed masses on my adrenal gland, pancreas and kidneys. I got a biopsy the next day.

“I had been running every day, and the endorphins kept the pain suppressed for a long time.”

Then came the diagnosis: defuse large B cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“The doctor said it was good news because it responded well to chemo,” Jennifer said. “I started right away and had all kinds of biopsies and three kinds of chemo. My last treatment was Dec. 12, and in January I tested completely clear of cancer. The doctor called me a ‘perfect responder.’

“I went back to work Feb. 8. Two weeks later, I had a burning pain on my inner thighs. I was told I likely had shingles because of my low immunity and given shingles medication and pain pills.”

But the pain persisted, and Jennifer had a five-hour nerve biopsy in her lower spine — that and all the other tests came back negative.

“The doctors still thought I had shingles,” she said. “Then I experienced nerve loss on one side of my face and went to the emergency room. I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and sent home. Then I lost control of one eye and the other side of my face. All I could eat was baby food.

“Finally, Tim and my friends said they were going to get me admitted to (Providence) St. Vincent (Medical Center). A neuro-oncologist there happened to be attending a conference, looked at me and explained how to test me. It turned out to be cancer.”

Facing a crossroads

Always thinking of others, Jennifer said, “Hopefully, I helped the doctors out, and they will know what to do for future patients.”

Tim took over the narrative, saying, “There was still some cancer left in her. It had crossed the blood-brain barrier and recurred in her central nervous system. Jenny had a shunt put in her head to get chemo directly to the spinal cord, and through that they could also draw spinal fluid out to test it.”

Jennifer explained, “My cranial nerves were affected. I want my smile back! Nothing is worse than losing that. I lost my smile in May, but I can still giggle!”

The Vranizans faced a crossroads June 30, when a doctor told Jennifer her only option was a type of chemotherapy that likely wouldn’t be effective. But naturally, they opted for the additional chemo, and it appears to have worked.

In addition, the Vranizans went to an alternative health institute in West Palm Beach, Fla., that utilizes infrared and cold laser therapy, massage, yoga and a raw, live, plant-based diet.

“When Western medicine couldn’t help anymore, it was time to look into alternative treatments,” Tim said.

Jennifer explained, “I went in with blurry vision, feeling off-kilter and using a cane. I came out with my vision cleared up, not using a cane and the facial paralysis improving.”

Joyful escape

She had a lot of opportunities to giggle the second weekend in August, when the entire family went to Southern California to spend a day at Disneyland and a day at Universal Studios, courtesy of the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit that sends cancer-afflicted families on vacations to take their minds off their troubles and create lasting family memories.

“When we went on Space Mountain, everyone was smiling except me,” Jennifer said. “We got to go to the front of all the lines, which meant I had to go on all the rides!”

Tim added, “It was so nice to do, and it is a great foundation.”

The next big milestone for the Vranizans took place in late August, when Jennifer was scheduled for a PET scan and MRI.

“If the cancer is under control, I will be able to get a stem cell transplant,” she said before the tests.

The Vranizans were thrilled when Jennifer’s doctor told them after the tests that “the PET scan looked great” and that she qualified for a stem cell transplant, with her preparation period starting in late August.

This means more time in the hospital, but the couple doesn’t mind because finally a cure may be on the horizon.

Outpouring of care

The Vranizans are getting so much support in their fight that they can scarcely believe it.

“It is really important to me to say that we live in such an extraordinary community — from St. Vincent to Sherwood,” Tim said. “The oncology nurses are really amazing and such a support to us. One student nurse even wrote a paper on Jennifer.

“Last August when all this started, friends and neighbors set up a meal train (, and five days a week someone brings dinner. We are on the CaringBridge website, which makes it easy to update friends, including those across the country and at Jennifer’s workplace.

“It is so nice but very humbling to have to accept this kind of attention. For example, Jennifer has spent about 40 nights in the hospital over the past year and never spent one night alone as she always had a family member or friend stay with her.”

Tim went on to say, “The St. Francis church and school community has been amazing, and the Sherwood community has been amazing. Until something like this happens, you don’t know what kind of support you will get. You hope it would happen. We meet other families at St. Vincent and realize that not everyone has this.”

Jennifer added, “We are a soccer family. Abby has been in a soccer club since first grade, so those friends plus people in the neighborhood and at the school have been wonderful.”

Tim explained, “At first it’s not comfortable to accept help with finances and meals, and under normal circumstances, we would never accept anything like this. We will definitely pay it forward. We know we can’t pay it back.”

Jennifer agreed, saying they will pay it forward for sure, right after she gets a clean bill of health.

“I have kids,” she said. “I can’t go down without a fight. My kids have to see me fight. I’m going to keep fighting this.”

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